Can the U.S.-India Relationship Last?

Can the U.S.-India Relationship Last?

Washington and New Delhi may never be able to elevate their relationship above transactionalism. 


The singular question presently being considered in Indian strategic quarters is to what extent it should align with the United States against China. Proponents of closer relations suggest that the countries are natural allies because of their common faith in a free market economy, human rights, liberalism, a rules-based world order, freedom of expression, and democracy. Secondly, after the Soviet collapse, India and the United States had fewer reasons to stay at a distance than they did during the Cold War. 

Today, the two countries have strong economic, defense, and strategic ties. India has signed a civilian nuclear agreement as well as a range of defense and intelligence-sharing agreements such as the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). Thirdly, the United States can offer India critical and emerging technologies in science, space, and defense. Fourthly, and most importantly, as John Mearsheimer suggests, the rise of the China challenge is the most crucial factor in bringing the United States and India closer, as both countries are alarmed by China’s economic strength, military adventurism, and territorial revisionism. In an interview with the Indian Express, he said, “The rise of China is a serious threat to the U.S. So, the more powerful China grows, the more India and the United States will move closer.”


However, closer analysis indicates several limitations to what the United States can offer India in such a crisis. As mentioned above and in my previous article, the United States can share intelligence, satellite imagery, and some minor equipment or technology in communications and logistics. Undoubtedly, intelligence is useful in planning operations, defense, and counterattacks; however, it is doubtful whether it can turn the tables in the war with China to India’s advantage. Due to the glaring gaps in border infrastructure and defense technological, economic, and cyber capabilities between India and China, prospects for a decisive Indian victory and Chinese defeat remain abysmal. 

However, contrary to the enthusiasts of the intelligence support argument, it is also pertinent to mention that Western media and government allegations against the Indian intelligence apparatus over the alleged killing of Khalistani extremists, there are growing perceptions that the United States wants to neuter the Indian counter-terrorism intelligence apparatus. These suspicions, in turn, cause some to question U.S. intent and sincerity in its offers to provide crucial intelligence support against China. 

For instance, Shishir Gupta, an Indian journalist, has alleged that the “five eyes” intelligence-sharing network (the United States, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) is deliberately leaking information to the media with the intent of interfering in the Indian elections. Whatever the truth of the whirlwind of allegations and suspicion, their presence may complicate further bilateral intelligence-sharing. 

While discussing the prospects of the India-U.S. defense partnership, it needs to be noted that up to 86 percent of the Indian equipment, weapons, and platforms are of Russian origin. Since 2014, 55 percent of India’s defense imports have been from Russia. In the Air Force, two-thirds of equipment is of Russian origin. The figures in the Navy and Army are 41 percent and 90 percent, respectively. Replacing such a large inventory is a long-drawn process that will take over a decade. Given this, it will be highly challenging to align American spare parts and technology with the equipment of Russian origin. 

Also, total alignment and strategic partnership with the United States would mean the loss of India’s strategic autonomy, which has always been the fundamental aspect of India’s foreign policy. India has fiercely guarded its strategic autonomy since becoming independent of the British Empire. During the Cold War, it followed non-alignment and refused to join the power blocks. Even today, India is highly skeptical of joining alliances and pursues multi-alignment in its foreign policy. 

Also, New Delhi feels that Chinese adventurism on its borders is meant to deter India from getting too close to the United States. Joining the U.S. camp will only provoke China further, causing it to continue or expand its aggression and incursions. If this argument is seen in the historical context, it has merit. India had acted as a mediator in the Korean War, bringing the United States and China to the negotiating table. However, the Chinese were suspicious of the growing U.S.-India bonhomie and did not take Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s insistence on neutrality at face value. The India-China border frictions started worsening in 1959 when the Dalai Lama sought refuge in India. In a bid to open another anti-China front in Tibet, the CIA office in Calcutta established communication channels with Dalai Lama’s elder brother, Thupten Norbu. Then, the CIA trained Tibetan Khampa guerillas in Colorado and airdropped them in Tibet to incite an insurrection. Although the operation failed, it did not stop Beijing from suspecting Indian involvement. 

In 1960, President Kennedy sent John Kenneth Galbraith as ambassador to India with a vision to nurture democratic India as a strong bulwark against Communist China. Galbraith, a renowned economist, became close to Nehru, who often consulted him on internal policy matters. With his good graces in the White House, Gailbraith secured a $1 billion economic assistance package sanctioned for India, which further cemented the Chinese fears of India and the United States entering into a strategic partnership with an anti-China focus. In today’s context, many Indian experts continue to believe, and rightly so, that closer association with Washington troubles Beijing, which retaliates through incursions into the border areas.

In addition to the concerns mentioned above, India’s latent distrust of the United States is another crucial factor that hinders the India-U.S. relationship. Though it is fashionable among scholars to talk about shared democratic values and burgeoning trade relations, there is a long history of distrust, misunderstanding, and friction going back to the Cold War. 

America’s support to India’s arch-enemy, Pakistan, in the 1971 war and its continuing, if less pronounced, partnership with Islamabad has left a mark on Indian perceptions. Hence, to this day, the veterans in India’s armed forces, diplomatic cadre, bureaucracy, politics, academia, and geo-strategic community continue to harbor strong distrust and skepticism toward the United States. Furthermore, India’s policy wonks view Washington as sympathetic to a multitude of India’s enemies, such as Khalistani extremists and Kashmiri separatists. Some of the recent developments, such as the Iraq War, Arab Spring, and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, have further dented the credibility of the United States. In addition, the global narrative of the U.S. “stumbling” toward an irreversible decline also blurs the vision of cooperation and dampens the hopes of the Indian strategic establishment.

In his Foreign Policy article, Derek Grossman, an American geopolitics expert, wrote, “U.S.-India ties remain fundamentally fragile.” Despite widespread optimism generated by India’s membership in the Quad and strengthening India-U.S. ties after the 2020 Galwan border crises, the fundamentals remain weak. Except for common interests such as the China challenge, there is a huge trust deficit. Mearsheimer has rightly said that “if the Chinese threat were to disappear, then the U.S. and India wouldn’t be nearly as friendly.” 

The United States has deep-rooted concerns about democratic backsliding in India, particularly under the Modi-led BJP government. The U.S.-based organizations, official ones, and civil society organizations have raised issues of declining press freedom, suppression of the opposition, rising Hindutva extremism, and discriminatory treatment of minorities, particularly under the current Modi-led BJP government. Human Rights Watch criticized the abrogation of Article 370 and stated that since the abrogation, the Kashmiris had faced repression. U.S. Commission for Religious Freedom condemned India’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, which was brought to expedite the process of providing citizenship to the persecuted non-Muslims of India’s neighboring countries, “a significant downward turn in religious freedom in India.” More recently, the relationship between the two countries has gone sour over the United States and Canadian allegations of India orchestrating the assassination of Sikh extremists and terrorists in Canada and the United States. 

Though there are no official estimates of the public perception, many Indians are irritated by America’s sermonizing. The American attitude is seen as unnecessary, bullying, derisive, and hubristic in pressuring India to refrain from securing its strategic goals. Nevertheless, India is oversensitive at times and overreacts to criticism from the Western world. New Delhi needs to develop a better understanding of Western society and government systems and put on a thicker skin. 

In the long run, India can benefit immensely from the United States, particularly in technology, manufacturing, investment, and trade. However, credible voices in the Indian strategic community believe that the relations with the United States can only be transactional and there is no love lost or genuine meeting of the minds on critical issues. They are highly pessimistic about the United States genuinely transferring technology to India. Drawing their lessons from the Ukraine War, some of the hawkish and skeptical voices even argue that the United States wants to ignite a war between India and China to benefit its weapons lobby and expedite India’s total shift towards the Western camp, leaving it no position to maintain strategic autonomy.